I was a mass transit fan when mass transit wasn’t cool. My first job after graduate school was at New York City Transit, in logistics and inventory control in the mid-1980s, and I was a loyal transit rider for decades (though if I had gotten into bicycle transportation sooner, I might weigh 40 pounds less today). And I studied transit systems, read books about them, and after the development of the internet allowed those with similar interests but not much free time to communicate, made the acquaintance of other transit buffs and transit historians.
For much of the time from the late 1970s to today, metro New York’s rail transit system was on the upswing. Management improved, some of the worst labor abuses of the past were done away with (at least on the subway), and money was invested. As a result reliability improved, the inflation-adjusted cost per vehicle revenue hour fell until the mid-1990s, ridership increased and filled the trains, and the cost per rider fell even faster. Today ridership and revenues are vastly higher than 20 or 30 years ago on all major rail transit systems in metro New York, and those transit systems have been the engine of the New York Metro economy. If I and other transit buffs could go back in time 30 years, to the crime and grime and constant breakdowns of the 1980s, and know nothing of today other than how high ridership and transit revenues now are, what would we have thought the transit system would be like in 2017? We certainly would not have expected the disaster we seem to be facing. And collapsing systems despite soaring ridership are present elsewhere in the U.S. as well.
This is the second and final post based on my compilation of National Transit Database data for 2015, and the years before. The first post, which contains links to a couple of spreadsheets, is here and should be read first.
One of the spreadsheets has a table with 2015 data on transit agencies around the country, plus charts, while the other has charts for 1991 to 2015. That post focused on operating costs. This post is on revenues and capital spending.
On a per unlinked trip basis, the average New York City subway fare is a bargain relative to other metro area rail systems at $1.24. Note, however, that transfer from one subway line to another is counted as two rides in this dataset. Measured more conventionally, the NYC subway had 1,762,565,419 rides in 2015, not the 2,662,421,226 unlinked trips as measured by the National Transit Database. Measured per ride, the subway cost an average of $1.88. The PATH cost $2.03. Like the Staten Island Ferry, which is free, the Staten Island Railway, which is also free aside from the two stations close to the ferry, is even more of a bargain at $0.96.
Other major urban heavy rail systems cost about the same as the New York City subway per unlinked trip, with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) also at $1.24, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) at $1.23, and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) at $1.06. Los Angeles is much cheaper at $0.76, but San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and the Washington DC Metro are more expensive at $3.41 and $2.32 respectively. Those systems have vehicles that move much faster and passengers who travel much farther than the NYC subway, and are thus a hybrid subway/commuter rail system.
Average fare revenues per trip are much higher on NY metro area commuter rail lines, the Long Island Railroad ($7.10), MetroNorth ($7.90) and New Jersey Transit ($6.06). Most commuter rail systems have lower average fares, including the $4.02 per unlinked trip for SEPTA, the $4.65 for Northeast Illinois Metra Rail, the $5.75 for the MBTA, the $4.39 for the Bay Area’s Caltrain, and the $5.95 for southern California’s Metrolink.
As for the buses, New York City’s fare per unlinked trip is reported at $1.17 for New York City Transit buses, $1.68 for the MTA Bus Company, and $0.78 for Select bus, although the fare is the same for all three. (The MTA Bus Company is the former private bus lines the MTA took over in the 2000s). The total for the three is reported at 889 million unlinked trips. The number of trips in total, without counting bus-to-bus transfers as separate trips, is reported by the MTA at 776 million, for a mean cost-per-trip as most understand it of $1.41 for New York City Transit buses.
Fare revenues per unlinked trip are higher elsewhere around New York State, at $1.66 for Nassau Intercounty Express, $1.62 for the Westchester Bee Line System, $1.52 for Suffolk County, $1.45 for Niagara Frontier (metro Buffalo), $1.42 for the Lift Line (Rocheseter), and $1.36 for Centro (Syracuse). The Capital District Transportation Authority is lower at $0.94.
The likely reason for variation between New York City bus services, and the reason NYCT buses have lower fare revenues per ride than suburban and upstate services, is free transfers, including bus to subway transfers with the fare revenues shared with the subway. Thus fare revenues per unlinked trip may be higher for the MTA Bus Company than for New York City Transit buses because riders on the former private lines are less likely to transfer to the subway.
Like operating costs, inflation-adjusted fare revenues per unlinked trip fell on Metro North, New Jersey Transit the Long Island Railroad, and PATH from the early 1990s to the early to early- to mid-2000s, before rising again. For the Long Island Railroad, for example, the decrease was from $5.48 per trip in 1991 ($2015) to $4.61 in 2002, prior to an increase to $7.10 in 2015. The arc was the same for New York’s taxpayers and toll payers – money borrowed and pension funding deferred to cut taxes and tolls, followed by large increases after 2000. A generation got a great deal for itself, and then headed for retirement and/or Florida, leaving those here today worse off. We’re paying for Generation Greed’s deal now.
For New York City transit (subway and bus combined) inflation-adjusted unlinked fare revenue per unlinked trip increased from $1.30 in 1991 to $1.55 in 1996, before falling to just $1.05 in 2002. As a result of free bus-to-subway transfers and unlimited ride Metrocards, fare revenue per unlinked trip fell by one-third. (Tolls were frozen, and in some cases tollbooths were removed, at the same time, with the federal, New York and New Jersey gas taxes frozen as well). In response to the fare increase to $1.16 per unlinked trip in 2003, it was claimed that the MTA had hidden $billions and two sets of books, a claim that has been repeated each time the agency seeks funding every since.
The MTA, it was said, had a hidden surplus even though it was borrowing massively at the time, because its debt was temporarily not rising as fast as projected, so some of that money could be used in the short run to benefit those rising mass transit –back then — even more. For the transit advocates of that time, it seems, the problem was that today, decades later as the bills come due, that things aren’t bad enough.
Meanwhile, fare revenue per unlinked trip continued to lag behind inflation, reaching $0.99 in 2007 and $2008 even as $billions more were borrowed. But with Generation Greed exiting mass transit, retiring and moving to Florida, even as the millennial flocked to transit, the fare revenue per unlinked trip jumped to $1.25 per unlinked trip in FY 2015. (Expect the same sort of thing to happen to Social Security and Medicare). If inflation-adjusted fare revenues per unlinked trip had been at $1.25 in $2015 from 1999 to 2014, which is to say if past riders paid as much as current riders (and perhaps less than future riders), New York City Transit would have collected $6.7 billion in additional revenue over those years. And the MTA would perhaps have $6.7 billion less in debt.
The NTD has fare revenue and unlinked trip data available for NYC buses and subways separately starting in 2002.
Bus revenues per trip are going up relative to subway revenues per trip. One reason might be fewer bus-to-subway transfers. There was a big increase in bus ridership when such transfers became free, and a temporary halt to the long downward slide in New York City bus ridership. Distances that would have been walked became bus trips, if the bus happened to be there. But the generations that shunned the subway and took the bus instead are moving out and dying off, and lousy bus service has convinced newer and younger New Yorkers to find other ways to get to the subway station, including long walks and bicycle rides.
On the bus or the subway, in any event, adjusted for inflation New York City transit fares were perhaps low for a couple of decades, but they no longer are. Today’s riders are paying extra for yesterday’s, the riders who are represented by the Straphangers Campaign. And not just in extra fares.
One could, however, make the case that the large effective fare cuts at NYC Transit in the late 1990s didn’t actually cost that much revenue, because additional trips took place that would not have occurred without free transfers and unlimited rides. From 1996 to the low point in 2002, total fare revenue fell only 9.1% adjusted for inflation, not one-third. From $2.57 billion in 1991 (in 2015 dollars), total New York City Transit fare revenue rose to $3.1 billion in 1996, fell back to $2.8 billion in 2002, and increased to $3.2 billion in 2007. Total New York City Transit fare revenue soared to $4.3 billion in 2015, as ridership soared and fares increased faster than inflation.
The City of New York contributed little to MTA operating budget until 2007, when it started paying the MTA for taking over the former private bus lines. Much has been made, and legitimately so, about the elimination of New York City and New York State non-debt capital funding for the MTA Capital Plan in the early 1990s. But state operations funding, most of which comes from dedicated MTA taxes collected only downstate, also fell during the Pataki Administration, from $1.3 billion in 1994 to just $835 million in 1997, a decrease of 36.5%.
Cuts in operating assistance, unlike cuts in capital assistance, are felt immediately, and operating assistance would fall no further. In 2006, New York State operating assistance (mostly dedicated MTA taxes) was $1.1 billion. If state operating assistance to New York City transit had stayed at $1.25 billion per year from 1996 to 2007, the MTA would have received $1.5 billion more over the years. Instead, more operating costs were classified as “reimbursable,” and more money was borrowed.
State operating assistance then doubled to $2.2 billion in 2007, and reached $3.9 billion in 2014, before falling to $3.1 billion in 2015. Somehow riders have not felt the benefit of that increase. Was it real? Was work formerly mis-classified as capital reclassified as operating? That is the hopeful scenario. The worst scenario is that ll the extra money is going to past debts and retirement costs. Overall, the New York City Transit’s inflation-adjusted operating revenues nearly doubled from $4.4 billion in 2005 to $8.7 billion in 2014 before falling back to $7.9 billion in 2015, according to data reported the National Transportation Database.
What happened? Part of the answer is additional MTA taxes, notably the 2009 payroll tax and the 1/8th cent increase in the sales tax in 2006. It would appear, however, that those funds are not available for capital spending, as it is going to the operating budget. And transit service been cut and transit reliability has fallen. Where did all that money go? Apparently not to current transit workers providing services and current construction workers making repairs. The money is probably being sucked into the past.
It isn’t just New York City Transit fare revenues that have soared in recent years. The same is true on New Jersey Transit, a state where they didn’t fund their pensions for two decades-plus, MetroNorth, and the Long Island Railroad. More recently PATH fare revenues have also increased. Just taking the period from 2005 to 2015, a period when the wages and salaries of the average worker fell sharply relative to inflation, total fare revenue increased 34.7% for New York City Transit, 30.5% for the Long Island Railroad, 27.6% for MetroNorth Railroad, 37.1% for New Jersey Transit, 63.8% for the PATH (some of which is the recovery from 9/11), and 46.7% for the Staten Island Railway (despite free trips within the island if they don’t end near the ferry).
If one wants to find something that more or less looks fair, at least within the MTA, it is fare revenue per passenger mile. For the New York City subway ($0.30), the Long Island Railroad ($0.32) and MetroNorth ($0.29) it is about the same. Buses actually collect more revenue per passenger mile, because they move so slowly, a factor that also inflates their cost per passenger mile, and thus their subsidy level.
In 2015, New York City subway riders covered the highest share of their operating costs in the metro area at 63.7%. Among heavy rail systems that is still behind BART at 79.8%, and it is now no higher than the DC Metro at 63.7%. The subway still covers more of its costs with fares than the area’s commuter rail systems, with New Jersey Transit at 57.4%, MetroNorth at 59.7%, and the Long Island Railroad at just 54.3. The high-cost PATH covers just 44.7% of its operating cost with fares, and the little-used Staten Island Railroad covers just 16.3%
The commuter rail transit system with the best fare operating cost recovery? The Bay Area’s Caltrain commuter rail system at 72.2%. Caltrain’s operating cost per vehicle revenue hour is nearly as high as the Long Island Railroad, and higher than MetroNorth and New Jersey Transit. Yet Caltrain’s operating cost per passenger mile is just $0.24, half the $0.48 for the New York City subway and far below the $0.58 for the Long Island Railroad. And its cost per unlinked trip is just $6.08, less than half the $13.08 for the LIRR and $13.23 for MetroNorth.
How? Caltrain carries large numbers of passengers in two directions, not just to the city of San Francisco in the morning and from the city in the afternoon. Since many workers now choose to live in the city of San Francisco and commute to the Silicon Valley, as well as commute into San Francisco from the Peninsula. The is more riders for the same work, even compared with the NYC subway, which runs mostly empty away from Manhattan after dropping off workers there in the morning.
In metro New York, MetroNorth gets some of that reverse commute benefit, since suburban jobs are concentrated near train stations in White Plains, Greenwich and Stamford and many are filled from workers from Manhattan and the Bronx. People also use MetroNorth to commute within Connecticut.
But Long Island politicians have blocked a third track for the Long Island Railroad mainline until, perhaps, now, a track that would allow more reverse commute service in addition to local and express service to and from New York City. And Long Island politicians have also blocked the creation of new employment hubs near train stations. So rather than Silicon Valley, Generation Greed has turned Long Island into grifter central, a place younger generations are fleeing rather than be drained by the parochial grifter political culture in Nassau and Suffolk.
In New Jersey, a new bus terminal at Secaucus, and extending the Flushing Line subway there as part of the Gateway Project, would not only allow a decent commute for those traveling to Manhattan while the Port Authority Bus Terminal is rebuilt in place, but also allow a central transit point for transit travel within New Jersey, allowing business near stations to attract workers from around the state. But New Jersey politicians are against that, too, starting with the Governor. They don’t want those lowlife subway riders being able to travel to their state, and believe a subway transfer is beneath them (or so they said at transportation meetings I attended back in the 1990s, when the extension of the Flushing Line was first raised).
Since transit and bike transportation is what younger generations want, it seems, Generation Greed politicians seem determined to take it away from them. Even in the case of a success story such as Caltrain.
Like bus systems everywhere, New York City’s buses are as much a social service as a transportation system, and cover only 32.7% of their operating costs. While the operating cost recovery for a few systems is a little higher, such as New Jersey Transit buses at 43.9% and Nassau County Intercounty at 40.5%, most bus systems are similar to New York City’s in that regard.
Paratransit systems cover virtually none of their sky-high costs with fares, and the Staten Island Ferry is free. But the metro area’s private express bus lines such as Academy Lines, Inc. (93.7%), Hudson Transit (90.7%), Rockland Coaches, Inc. (77.1%) cover a high share of their costs with fares, albeit at the cost of being very expensive.
Prior to the sudden $1 billion discovery of additional operating costs, the New York City subway was covering 73.2% of its operating cost in 2012, far above the 34.8% for New York City Transit buses, 40.4% for the PATH, 62.5% for MetroNorth, 58.8% for New Jersey Transit, and just 50.0% for the Long Island Railroad. Subway riders still cover more of their costs than the users of other regional transit services, but the gap has closed. In particular, Long Island Railroad riders suddenly covered 54.3% of their cost in 2015, up from 50.7% in 2014, according to data provided to the National Transit Database. That was after former MTA chief Jay Walder responded to suburban carping by stating that it was the suburbs that were getting the better deal out of the agency. And after a screw the newbie, flee to Florida contract took back money from new LIRR workers, but took back nothing from the disability fraudsters of the past.
The general trend for operating cost recovery is up for the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit rail, flat for MetroNorth, and down (but not in reality, just due to the sudden discovery of additional costs) for the NYC subway.
The New York City subway has to cover a large share of its costs, because so many people use it. The St. Louis metro rail system covers less than one-quarter of its operating cost with fares, but because it is so small the system’s total operating subsidy was just $55 million in 2015. Which is not much of a burden to metro St. Louis taxpayers, most of whom drive, despite equating to $3.32 per ride. Meanwhile, the New York City subway’s total operating subsidy was $1.9 billion, despite amounting to just $0.71 per ride, the lowest among major rail systems.
The last time I compiled this data, I reported that the operating subsidy of the Long Island Railroad and Metro North combined was the same as that of the subway, despite the commuter rail systems carrying fewer passengers. That is no longer the case, as the LIRR ($590 million) and MetroNorth ($457 million) have a combined subsidy of $1.05 billion – and some of the MetroNorth subsidy is paid for by Connecticut. New Jersey Transit’s operating subsidy cost $402 million in 2015. These were the second, third and fourth most costly rail transit systems in the country as measured by total operating subsidy.
The most costly part of the metro New York transit system, however, is New York City surface transit. The 2015 operating subsidy was $1.79 billion for New York City Transit buses, $432 million for MTA Bus Company buses, $32 million for Select Bus, and $448 million for New York City Paratransit, for a total of $2.7 billion.
To put that in perspective, the total personal income of all New York City residents was $540 billion in 2015, according data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The combined subway and surface transit operating subsidy was $4.5 billion, or 0.83% (just less than one percent) of New Yorkers’ total personal income. And to put that in further perspective, I estimate that state and local taxes absorbed at least 15.8% of the personal income of New York City residents in FY 2014, 5.8% higher than the U.S. average of 10.0%. The operating subsidy for NYC’s large transit system, which also saves New Yorkers money by allowing them to live without their own car or with just one, accounted for about one-seventh of the extra tax burden.
When I last examined Metro New York transit finance, I suggested that New York City take over its surface transit system, which now requires $2.7 billion in annual operating subsidies — and rising.
If it were to do so, the approximately $500 million the City of New York provided to the MTA operating budget would stop, making a net hit to the city budget of $2.2 billion. I also proposed that as part of the deal, the MTA payroll tax collected in the city would be turned over to it rather than going to the MTA, with the suburban counties also having the option to keep the payroll tax for mass transit. The payroll tax came to more than $1.3 billion in 2015, and with special deals to exempt the suburbs from some of the taxes added every year (offset by state tax funding that has now been cut off), New York City probably accounts for $1.1 billion of that. That would leave $1.1 billion for the City of New York to come up with.
The City of New York’s Medicaid contributions to New York State come to $5.4 billion. Eliminate the local share of Medicaid, and the end of local support for surface mass transit throughout the state could be one of the costs saved by the state in return.
While the total subsidy level is highest for New York City’s subway and surface transit systems, because they are large, the per-ride subsidy is highest for the premium services for those coming in from the suburbs and from suburban, mostly White Non-Hispanic areas of New York City. Compared with the subsidy of $0.71 per ride for the New York City subway, the average operating subsidy per unlinked trip was $5.98 for the Long Island Railroad, $5.33 for MetroNorth, $4.89 for the Staten Island Railway, $4.50 for New Jersey Transit rail, and $12.64 for New York City Transit express buses.
The Staten Island Ferry cost $6.32 per ride, none of it covered by the fare. The private ferries sponsored by the New York City economic development corporation were only subsidized by $2.12 per ride in 2015, but that was at high fares. The DeBlasio Administration has since jacked up the subsidies and cut the fare to the same as the subway, for a premium service that is promoted as for people who deserve more than subway and bus riders do.
The Mayor also proposes a light rail service connecting the new luxury developments on the Brooklyn waterfront, developments that are exempt from property taxes under 421a, so their residents won’t have to ride buses. Some may object to the “progressive” policy of adding luxury transit options for developers and building owners to put in their marketing literature (next the exercise rooms). After all, that is what this is, part of the marketing even if the future residents find no reason to use the proposed system. While the general transit system rots.
Light rail, however, can be cost effective in a dense enough corridor, even though its costs are higher, if it runs in a relatively straight, dedicated right of way. In 2015, for example, on the MBTA in Boston the light rail system (Green Line) cost $277.84 per vehicle revenue hour to operate compared with just $184.74 for buses, but the subsidy was just $1.73 per ride for the light rail and $2.54 for the bus. In San Francisco the light rail cost system cost $358.49 per vehicle revenue hour compared with just $195.14 for the bus, but the subsidy was just $1.31 per ride for light rail and $2.19 for the bus. (And that, stupidly, is with a light rail system that stops at stop signs every block in West San Francisco). On SEPTA in Philadelphia the light rail cost $170.35 per vehicle compared with $157.69 for the bus, but the subsidy was $1.45 for the light rail and $2.57 for the bus.
But at those higher operating costs (let alone the capital costs), the subsidy for light rail becomes very expensive if those large vehicles aren’t filled with riders. In Los Angeles, the operating cost of light rail is subsidized $3.47 per ride compared with $2.12 for the bus. And in Buffalo (Niagara Frontier), the light rail is subsidized $3.83 per ride compared with $2.99 for the bus.
While New York City Transit operating funding has soared, according to data reported to the National Transit Database, capital funding plunged, falling from nearly $3.6 billion in 2010 to just $1.65 billion in 2011, with nearly 70.0% of that provided by the federal government. Capital funding stayed low for several years before rebounding in 2015, according to the data presented. What happened?
In reality, actual cash money capital funding was slashed in the early 1990s. Since then most of the MTA’s non-federal capital revenues, as reported to the NTD, are local revenues, and most of those local revenues are the proceeds from bond issues – the MTA’s soaring debts. In 1994, the State of New York provided $283 million in $2015 to the MTA capital plan, in money collected in state taxes and invested in infrastructure. The City of New York matched it, for a total of $567 million. A small amount was borrowed, but with those funding sources and nearly $1.5 billion in federal funds, most spending on MTA capital projects was hard-earned cash. But in 1995 the City of New York and the State of New York cut their up front contributions to capital plan to zero, and nearly $800 million was borrowed instead.
Since capital projects no longer cost anything up front, to the taxpayers of the time, cost discipline went out the window, and the cost of capital projects soared. Contractors took the MTA’s cost estimate for a project as the low point, and jacked up prices from there. The higher price for one project became the cost estimate for the next one, in an upward spiral. In addition, like state and local governments, New York’s construction contractors and unions retroactively enriched pensions in the 1990s to benefit those cashing in and moving out, while underfunding them, increasing construction industry profits, and executive pay. When the stock market deflated back to normal (and despite being inflated twice more by near zero and zero interest rates) the multi-employer construction union pension plans became underfunded. Since the MTA is required to use union contractors, the unions have used the MTA to make up for those richer pensions – and for pension underfunding on past private construction in metro New York – by charging vastly more.
I returned to New York City Transit in the early 2000s as a capital budget analyst, expecting to work on trying to push back against those soaring contractor costs. Instead I found out I had in fact been hired to engage in the perpetual war of New York City Transit against New York City Transit, as the operating departments worked to shift costs onto the capital plan as “reimbursable expenditures” to balance their budgets. In the end, the top brass always sided with the operating budget, because (borrowed) “capital money is less green.”
Knowing that soaring debts would eventually destroy the MTA, and not wanting to spend my career watching it happen in person, I exited the agency, ran against the state legislature as a protest candidate, and moved on the private sector.
Generation Greed politicians responded to my protest, snark, by doubling and redoubling down on the soaring debts, retroactive pension increases, pension underfunding, boondoggles, giveaways, special tax deals and favors that have left the generations to follow so much worse off.
If the City and State had kept paying in $567 million per year in actual cash money to the MTA capital plan after 1994, that would have added up to an extra $11.3 billion over 20 years. Which could have meant $11.3 billion less in debt. And the MTA would probably have gotten better value for the money, because Generation Greed would have felt the price of paying it. Worse, what was done to the MTA Capital Plan was also done to the “Transportation Trust Fund” for roads and bridges – it was raided for Generation Greed’s short-term needs, with borrowing taking the place of dedicated tax revenues and tolls. In New York and in New Jersey.
Now taxes and tolls have been increased, along with the fares. Current and future generations of New York and New Jersey residents will pay more than Generation Greed should have been paying all along, for a transportation system that is deteriorating.
While New York City Transit’s capital revenues have plunged, its subway capital expenditures have fallen more modestly. The $2.6 billion in 2015 was a fairly typical amount for recent years, though down from the higher spending levels of 2008 to 2010. Those who try to justify using all that debt for capital expenditures point out that capital assets last a long time, and so may legitimately may be paid for over a long time in debt service on bonds. But that was a self-serving Generation Greed fallacy. The first MTA Capital Plan was in the early 1980s. That was more than 30 years ago. So isn’t the system “finished?” Can’t capital spending just be eliminated as the MTA pays off the debt?
The answer is no. With the exception of big system expansions such as the Second Avenue Stubway and East Side Access, MTA Capital spending is not a one-and-done thing. It is the ongoing replacement of parts of the system as they wear out. Or the failure to do so. Eventually, if all the revenues are going to interest on the debt from past ongoing normal replacement, future ongoing normal replacement stops, and the transit system starts to fall apart.
And that may be where we are, despite fairly high spending levels, as the mean distance between failure (MDBF) for the subway cars plunges and service disruptions due to signal and power problems soar. Based on what is happening to service, despite much higher funding, adjusted for inflation, for either “operating” maintenance or “capital” ongoing normal replacement, it must have slowed or stopped. It took a few years for the consequences to show up, but it will get worse from here – even with higher taxes and tolls.
Note how Mayor DeBlasio is running for re-election this year, Governor Cuomo will be running for re-election next year, both have national ambitions, and neither will touch the MTA with a 10-foot pole. They are treating it as in insoluble problem, an inevitable disaster.
Overall MTA Capital spending is down from the peak, and down from the early 2000s, before most of that debt was run up. That is a matter of concern, particularly as the value the agency receives for its capital spending gets worse and worse. While the NTD reports capital spending still exceeded $3 billion in 2015, it looks like it’s going to be much lower going forward now that the debt burden is immense and Generation Greed politicians are slithering away (or going to jail) and leaving wreckage.
Cuomo’s typical response (to collapsing transit service) is to refer to the size of his recent five-year MTA capital plan. Tuesday was no different.
“Our commitment to the subways includes the largest Capital Plan in history – with more than $14 billion for New York City Transit alone – and nearly $4.5 billion this year in operating support,” said Weinstein. “These problems were not created overnight but there is no one more dedicated to fixing them than Governor Cuomo.”
But even that assertion is more appearance than reality, according to the non-partisan Citizens Budget Commission.
Including the $10.5 billion the MTA got in its last capital plan for Hurricane Sandy-related repairs and adjusting for inflation, “the 2015-2019 plan is the smallest plan since 2000,” said Jamison Dague, the commission’s director for infrastructure studies. Excluding the Sandy money, it’s the second smallest since 2000.
With the metro area’s economically critical rail transit system facing a bleak future, and the regional economy along with it, when I last tabulated and wrote about National Transit Database I asserted that those rail systems should cover their costs on an “auto equivalent basis” in order to survive.
Motor vehicle drivers pay for the cost of buying, maintaining, and operating their cars. But aside from federal and state highways, which have dedicated gas tax and toll revenues, they ride on streets paid for by all area residents, including transit riders. Subway and commuter rail riders, I asserted, should similarly pay for the cost of operating and maintaining the subway and commuter rail cars, replacing them on an ongoing basis, and collecting fares. If they did so there would be no reason not to increase service to correspond with increasing ridership, because the riders would cover that cost themselves. (The cost of the stations and infrastruture is fixed).
With the sudden appearance of $1 billion in additional operating costs on the books of the New York City subway, it is highly uncertain whether or not the MTA is correctly reporting transit finance data to the NTD. According to the NTD manual, however, the cost of those responsible for fare collection and the sale of fare media – including station agents – should be tabulated as part of the “vehicle operations” category. If the data is being correctly submitted, then the New York City subway, MetroNorth and New Jersey Transit rail all, in fact, covered their costs on an “auto equivalent basis” basis in 2015.
The Long Island Railroad only covered 86.5% of its costs on that basis. For the other rail systems, however, achievement of a fair level of cost recovery is tarnished by increasingly beastial overcrowding (on the subway), less frequent service on New Jersey Transit, and increasing unreliability on all these lines. To the point where, dedicated transit aficionado that I once was, I’m glad that I now work from home on some days and travel by to work by bicycle on other days.
Despite the fact that other than the roads they ride on and the stations they stop at, the New York City subway, New Jersey Transit Rail, and MetroNorth are covering their operating AND capital costs (based on average inflation-adjusted spending on new cars over two decades), no one is talking about increasing service. Service has been cut. When Governor Cuomo last sucked money out of the MTA to balance this year’s state budget, the person who wants to be appointed head of the MTA loyally pointed out that it wasn’t a problem because it wouldn’t require additional service cuts. At least not now, not yet.
As I look around the country in my current job, I see $trillions in commercial and residential real estate investment based on the nearby availability of rail transit service – in metro Boston, in metro Chicago, in metro Los Angeles, in metro San Francisco, in Northern Virginia, everywhere. Even as Generation Greed’s last years of pillage are leaving transit systems all over the U.S. in ruins. I have to wonder where this will lead.
I strongly recommend against buying a house — in New Jersey, on Long Island, anywhere — unless Generation Greed is forced to sell very, very cheap – cheap enough to offset the higher taxes and collapsing public services that generation is leaving behind. Hold out as long as you can, planning to hold out forever if need be, until the cost of the mortgage is 15.0% of your income. Not the 30.0% that had been the standard, or the 45.0% that (based on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines) they want younger generations to pay. You’ll need the difference to cover the huge disadvantage Generation Greed has foisted upon you in the public sector.